J. Todd Billings, The End of the Christian Life: How Embracing Our Mortality Frees Us to Truly Live. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2020. 240 pages.
A+: Each of us will die. Pretending otherwise is bad for body and soul. Weaving together real-life narratives with poignant theological insight, Billings offers sober, christ-centered hope for mortal creatures like us. He speaks of life in the pit of Sheol, embracing life as dying creatures, the challenge of medicalized hope, the temptation of healing and prosperity, and the hope of God’s presence in Christ. The End of the Christian Life is not just for those facing death or the death of a loved one. It is for all of us who walk this mortal road.
Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry. Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2008. 228 pages.
A: Reread. Leadership starts in the soul. While there are plenty of books that delve into tactics of leadership, Barton dives deeper. Drawing from the story of Moses, she charts the dangers, challenges, and hope found in life with God along the path of a leader. The more we are called forward to lead, the more we need time in solitude with God. Pastors must not simply help others experience God, but must do so ourselves. In a particular trying season of my leadership, this book has been an encouragement to keep walking forward and to find my rest in Christ.
Dick King-Smith, Babe: The Sheep-Pig. London: Gollancz, 1983. 118 pages.
B+: A timely book about a pig who wants to herd sheep. Won at a fair and brought home to be butchered, this kind-hearted pig wins over the heart of the farmer and eventually his wife. As he follows and imitates his surrogate mother (a sheep-dog), Babe learns to be a sheep-pig. However, Babe’s differences turn out to be an asset as he leads, not with arrogant aggression, but with gentleness and respect. Reading this book to my children at bedtime, I hoped they would grow to lead more like a sheep-pig than a sheep-dog.
Philip Martin, editor. The Writer’s Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon’s Lair to Hero’s Quest. Waukesha, WI: Kalmbach Publishing, 2002. 204 pages.
B: There are no shortcuts to good writing. Instead of shortcuts, this book provides wisdom from various fantasy authors about the particular challenges and puzzles of writing fantasy. Worldbuilding, characters, and plot are all covered within the realm of fantasy. The mixture of advice and examples, with just a dash of mysticism, is fairly typical of books on writing. Since the writing process is distinctive for each author, the collection can feel jumbled at times. However, its exploration of the five main sub-genres within fantasy was very clarifying for me. The book manages to be good, but not quite great.
David Flusser, Jesus. Jerusalem: Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2001. 324 pages.
B+: Though not without its flaws, this book had far more meat than gristle. As an observant Jew doing a biography of Jesus, Flusser’s account is both gracious and limited. He takes Luke as the most reliable of the gospels, while Matthew and Mark made subsequent faulty revisions. He largely ignores the resurrection accounts. Flusser takes seriously the claims Jesus makes about himself in the gospels, while being more critical of what he considers later Christians reception. There is much to be learned from this volume, particularly relating to the first century Jewish context of Jesus’ words and works.
P. D. James, Death in Holy Orders. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2001. 387 pages.
A: The book is a solid mystery novel with a satisfying conclusion. However, it was the pacing and prose that really captured me. James is able to make the reader feel the waves on the beach, smell the incense rising in the church, all while keep the quiet pace of life at this small theological college. When a student dies mysteriously, his wealthy father sends Adam Dagliesh to investigate. As more bodies begin to drop, the sordid secrets of the college come to light. There is a murderer in their midst, but everyone seems to have a motive.
Orson Scott Card, How To Write Science Fiction & Fantasy. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 1990. 140 pages.
B: The landscape of publishing has changed a lot in the last thirty years. The magazine market has dried up. With e-books, self-publishing has become easier (and cheaper) than ever. Internet fandom has exploded and best-sellers still fly off the shelves, while it has become more challenging for new authors to break in. These rapid changes make much of Card’s advice for aspiring authors seem outdated. His sections on world-building, plot, and character continue to shine. However, aspiring fantasy authors might want to look elsewhere or hope for an updated version of the book.
Gertrude Chandler Warner, The Boxcar Children (The Boxcar Children #1). Park Ridge, IL: Albert Whitman, 1989. 160 pages.
B: Reread. This book was pure nostalgia for me. Reading it chapter-by-chapter to my son at night reminded me of my parents reading the same stories to me. Four orphan children seek to make their way in the world and stay together. The fear their grandfather (the only potential guardian left) does not care for them. After several nights of searching for safety, the children stumble upon an abandoned boxcar. With grit and grace, they begin to turn the boxcar into a home. Finally settling in, they discover that their grandfather had been searching desperately for them all along.
Susan Cooper, Over Sea, Under Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1965. 243 pages.
A-: This book is proof you can create a gripping fantasy novel without obvious magic. While on vacation by the sea, three siblings stumble upon an old map in the attic. Heads full of adventure stories, they seek to puzzle out the map’s location, only to stumble upon an ancient quest for Arthurian treasure. However, they are not the only ones seeking it. A dark and menacing force also seeks the treasure. By luck, grit, and more than a little help from their Great Uncle Merry, the children’s treasure hunt soon transforms into a battle between good and evil.
Isaac Asimov, I, Robot. New York: Ballatine Books, 1950. 192 pages.
A: One of the great gifts of science fiction is the ability to explore timeless or timely questions about our world from a different angle. I, Robot is a shining example of just this type of fiction. Through the lens of famous robopsychologist, Susan Calvin, Asimov weaves a tale of the development of robotics from hated nannies to controlling the world. Through these short stories about robots, Asimov poses questions about the nature of humanity, love, freedom, reason, power, and what counts as good for the world. This book is worth picking up for any fan of science fiction.
Katherine Paterson, Bridge to Terabithia. New York: Harper Trophy, 1977. 128 pages.
C: Review contains spoilers. This is what would happen if Nicholas Sparks wrote a children’s novel. Lonely and quiet Jess only wants to be the fastest kid in fifth grade. When Leslie moves in next door, she turns his life upside down and invites him into an imaginary world of their own creation, Terabithia. Yet, when Leslie is tragically (and senselessly) dies, Jess is left to pick up the pieces and decide whether Terabithia can continue without her. Though the characters were likable and the book had beautiful moments, the reader is left wondering the true purpose of killing off Leslie.